Although it has been the capital of an independent nation for little more than a decade, ZAGREB has served as the cultural and political focus of Croatia since the Middle Ages.

Now home to almost a quarter of the country's population, the city grew out of the medieval communities of Kaptol and Gradec, which began life as separate fortified settlements but gradually grew to identify themselves as a single city. However, the present-day appearance of Zagreb owes most to the rapid growth of the nineteenth century, and many of the city's buildings are grand, peach-coloured monuments to the self-esteem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Outwardly, at least, Zagreb still shares the refined urban culture of Mitteleuropa – public transport is well organized, the streets are clean, the parks impeccably manicured – but behind the city's genteel facade teems a complex blend of central European, Mediterranean and Balkan cultures. The city's high-rise suburbs, built to accommodate families drawn to the capital by the rapid industrialization which followed World War II, continue to function as collection points for Croatia's diverse population.

In recent years the city's population has nudged beyond the million mark. Fighting in the south and east of the country produced an influx of migrants –especially Croats from Hercegovina, who enjoyed a disproportionate amount of influence in the city due to their links with the right-of-centre HDZ, the political party of-rudman.They're still referred to (only half-jokingly) as "white socks" due to their supposed lack of sartorial sophistication, while those families which have been resident here for call a few generations are proud to cathemselves purgeri, a term which comes from the same Germanic root as the English word "burgher" and harks back directly to the city's Habsburg past.True purgerism in all its heel-clicking, hand-kissing extravagance may have died out, but the name lives on as an important badge of Zagreb identity and, inevitably, is used pejoratively by outsiders to describe the snobbish urban pretensions of the capital.

With most travellers to Croatia heading straight for the coast, Zagreb is rarely overrun by foreign tourists, encouraging visitors to adapt to the unhurried rhythms of local life rather than trawling from one tourist trap to another. Sightseeing is a low-key affair – museums are occasionally absorbing but rarely spectacular – and a couple of days will be enough to give you a good taste of what the city offers, unless you get sucked in by the city's burgeoning nightlife, in which case a somewhat longer sojourn may well be in order. By day, Zagreb functions best as an outdoor city. The alleyways of the Baroque Kaptol and Gradec districts are an atmospheric place for a wander whatever the season, and in spring and summer downtown streets which can seem oppressively sombre during the winter suddenly become clogged with cafe tables as soon as the weather improves, while popular strolling areas such as Tkalčićeva and Preradovičev trg take on a languorous Mediterranean glamour. Leaving aside urban attractions, you shouldn't leave Zagreb without exploring at least some of the city's attractive rural hinterland. To the north, the ridge of Mount Medvednica and its peak, Sljeme, provide the city with a year-round recreation area, and much of inland Croatia is within day-trip range. -Specializing in Cheap Flights F